I still can’t decide if I should be impressed or appalled by the Mozambican public transportation system. The vehicles themselves are called chapas (pronounced “shop-ahs”) and as a whole, they resemble a somewhat decrepit fleet of white metal boxes on wheels. Door handles are frequently missing, seatbelts are non-existent, and I’ve never seen a front windshield without at least three large cracks across it. The chapas all congregate at the paragem, which is similar to a bus stop. Each chapa has a specific destination, but none of them have any sort of schedule. They line up along a block in the center of town and wait for passengers to come fill them up. Once the chapa is filled with passengers, it leaves. Until then, you just climb in, sit down, and hope that other people are travelling to the same place you are. In a large town like Maxixe, chapas usually fill up in 20-40 minutes, depending on the time of day. However, in smaller rural areas, you can wait for hours before the chapa fills up, and if no one else is interested in leaving town that day, you won’t be either. Try again tomorrow.
The paragem itself is a hub of activity. Parked vehicles filled with waiting passengers are a great market for local street vendors. All kinds of delicious street snacks are there to tempt you: grilled corn on the cob, fried dough balls, fish on a stick, roasted cashews, and hard boiled eggs served with a side of salt, to name just a few. One of the best parts of the paragem is that everything will come right to you. If you happen to be craving a packet of Nik-Naks (a Cheetos-type snack), but the nearest kid is only selling bananas, you just have mention the word “Nik-Naks” and literally within seconds he has managed to sound off the Nik-Nak alarm and three kids will show up at your chapa with Nik-Naks in tow.
Another important aspect to consider when taking public transportation is exactly what type of chapa you’ll be traveling in. There are three different chapa types: the mini-van, the open-back truck, and the covered wagon. Each has a unique set of advantages and disadvantages as well as a different seating strategy to consider. For any chapa type, if you can be the first one in the front passenger seat, you should take it. It’s definitely the most comfortable option, and you’ll have a good view. If riding in a mini-van chapa, you want to avoid the front row because you’ll end up with people crammed in front of you in the “standing area.” You also want to try to sit on the side farthest away from the sliding door. If you’re lucky, this will not only put you in control of a window, but will also allow you to avoid having to get out of the chapa and back in again every time someone in your row needs to get off.
The open-back truck is a little trickier. Since there seems to be no limit to the number of people that can fit in the back of truck, only a small percentage of them actually have “seats” on the edge. The few lucky people who arrive first will be able to stand directly behind the cab and have a fixed object to hang on to. Everyone else stands in the middle of the truck bed and grabs onto the shoulder/knee/back of whoever is nearby. Covered wagons are a step up from the open-back truck in that they are an open-back truck that has been covered with a tarp structure that is held in place by small iron bars, which provide additional hand-grips to some of the standing passengers.
Making field visits on a regular basis has been a large part of my internship this summer and I find myself on some sort of a chapa multiple times each week. While I still sometimes question the safety and efficiency of the public transportation system, I am starting to see how it also contains some of my favorite aspects of Mozambican culture: always being able to depend on your neighbor for help, dancing whenever there is music playing, and remembering never to be in too big of a hurry. Just sit back, relax, and let the Nik-Naks come to you.